A Spy in the Grotto
First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!
Do whatever steps you want, if
You have cleared them with the Pontiff…
Ave Maria, Gee it’s good to see ya,
Doin’ the Vatican Rag.
~Tom Leherer, The Vatican Rag
It started at a very young age. Perhaps I was attracted to all the iconic imagery, ancient rites and ceremony, or the fact that my friends received weekly dispensation for their impure thoughts. It might have been my envy of Saturday mass which left Sundays wide open to watch the Dodgers. Even the Ash Wednesday smudge on the forehead looked fun. You mean I can put dirt on my face and leave it there?
It was the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette that hooked me into wanting to become a Jesuit. It relates the story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, who in 1858 in Lourdes, France, reported 18 visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As was the role of the church in these days, Bernadette was subjected to harsh cross examination and accused as a heretic. Hollywood (as only Hollywood can) has the young girl, played by Jennifer Jones, vindicated when she tells her tormentors about a grotto where the Virgin says she will find miraculous, healing water. The church officials scoff at her – there is no water in this dark, rocky canyon. In the midst of a vision, a seemingly possessed Bernadette digs and eats dirt as if it is water, all but convincing her critics that she is truly a heretic and insane. As they attempt to cart her off to Le Loony Bin, water starts to bubble up from the earth where she was digging. The flowing spring becomes a healing site of miracles; to this day, people inflicted with every possible malady make pilgrimages to Lourdes in hopes of being healed. I was only eight but, oh boy, I wanted to be a Catholic.
Like Henry VIII, my father insisted that his Protestant theology should govern our religious upbringing. The sit, stand, sing off key, sit, sermon, stand, pass the plate, and sprint to the car of our local community church seemed so lackluster compared to the genuflecting, holy water, rote Latin sayings, incense, communion and confession of the Catholics.
When you are a young boy, you have a great need to belong to a tribe. A secret society is even better. While my Catholic friends were seemingly more conflicted when it came to sin, they seemed to wear their religion well and radiated a sense that God was looking out for them as long as they stayed in line. Some attended schools with nuns and Jesuit priests as teachers. To my father, this was a dangerous blurring of the lines between church and state, but I still wanted to be in the army of the Virgin Mary. Being a momma’s boy, I liked the idea of a high ranking holy mother. I was sure when my judgment day came, she would turn to God and say, “Come on, he’s a good kid. He did not actually expect to hit that car with the orange. Let’s give him a pass…”
After a predictable detour away from institutional religion in my late teens and early twenties, I returned to the church of my father and felt at home. Yet I never lost my fascination for Catholic history and tradition. I read extensively of the tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, simply referred to as “The Troubles.” I studied a Rome that author Stanley Bing referred to as “History’s First Multinational Corporation.” Bing contended that after the fall of Constantinople in 1492, the Roman Empire, thanks to Constantine, had successfully transformed from an imperial to theological power and, in reinventing itself, achieved a broader reach than its original imperial borders. Its prelates, senators and Caesars had become its abbots, bishops and Popes. It no longer conquered land; it converted souls.
I now noticed a world filled with monuments to the Catholic faith in the form of towering cathedrals, statues of saints, tales of sacrifice and martyrs, miracles, beatification, stigmata, healing and, best of all, their own football team. A bastion of gridiron giants embodied all the virtues and nobility of the faith in one great institution: Notre Dame University, home to the Gipper, Knute Rockne, Johnny Lujak, Terry Hanratty, Joe Montana, Joe Theisman.
Living close to the Coliseum in Los Angeles, I had become a USC football fan, but secretly held a passion for the Fighting Irish. They were God’s team. They fought like champions. They had the entire Catholic Church behind them and a lot of people praying for them. And, at South Bend, they had their own grotto, just like the one in The Song of Bernadette. When the movie Rudy came out, it was as if they had made it for me. I was Rudy. I would have done anything to don that gold helmet and risk life and limb for the Virgin Mother and Touchdown Jesus.
I made my first pilgrimage to South Bend to watch the USC-Notre Dame game. The last place I visited before the game was the grotto. It’s an inconspicuous overhang of rock adjacent to a picturesque lake where people gather reverently to light prayer candles and to meditate. There was no bubbling spring or invalids crawling in penance seeking to be healed, but it was a healing place – a place where believers and agnostics alike could sense the power that life is not all about sports or materialism. The Irish were bad this year and the Trojans were very good. The odds makers expressed no ambivalence about who was expected to win. Yet, when you mix in a sacred grotto, religious fans and a team sponsor who can part the Red Sea, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the entire USC football team started getting cramps at a critical moment in the game. No miracles occurred on this day and the Trojans triumphed 38-0. Yet, even in the depths of defeat and self-doubt, the Irish faithful remained until the last play.
To my spouse’s relief, I have no immediate plans to convert. I like my minister as well as the congregation and have come to deeply appreciate the Presbyterian faith. However, there is always that allure…a bell pealing in the distance, a nun in habit hurrying across a church common, a flickering candle inside an ancient grotto or a sea of green and gold helmets charging on to a battlefield armed with a belief that no matter how poor the odds, the Fighting Irish might prevail.
As I felt the warm, gentle wind of a late Indian summer and watched the candles dancing in the grotto at South Bend, I could not help but feel a sense of peace. In a fit of religious fervor, I made a sign of the cross and whispered, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” I suddenly came to my senses and felt like an imposter. An ancient Jesuit priest stood next to me and respectfully smiled. I frowned and scurried away. I was certain he was going to ask me what parish I belonged to…